The amazing story of Henry Fraser
October 23, 2013
Henry Fraser was on Saracens' books at the age of 17, he looked to have a bright future in the game like his brother Will. And then July 18, 2009, came around, the date Henry's life changed forever. Over the next two days, we bring you his incredible story
During his Saracens days © Henry Fraser
Imagine being a young 17-year-old boy who has everything going for him, a senior prefect, full colours, a good athlete, then imagine having all that taken away from you in a split second. It was a nightmare holiday to Portugal from the very first day after I had reached the boarding gate at the airport to find my passport was two months expired.
It was on the fifth day of our holiday when I did something I had already done many times when on the beach, but this time my life was about to change. All I did was run off the beach and jump into the sea - then the damage was done. I remember banging my head on the seabed - I clearly misjudged my dive - and opening my eyes naturally expecting to be out of the water standing up, but this was not the case.
I opened my eyes to find I was face down floating in the sea with my arms hanging lifeless in front of me, not being able to move anything from my neck down. Never in my life have I been so scared of anything until that moment when I was surrounded by the silence of the sea piercing my ears utterly helpless thinking this was it. I was panicking. I just managed to turn my head hoping someone was there, and I was lucky enough that a friend asked me whether I was okay. I was not.
I was then dragged through the water to the beach where I was incredibly lucky as there were two ex-rugby coaches who had had basic training and were able to help me, and to these men I'm incredibly grateful for what they did.
I was then airlifted to a hospital in Lisbon, and at this point I was panicking more and more as I was by myself with no friends or family around me. But even so I had a paramedic who took amazing care of me all the way to the hospital. Once I had arrived there I was rushed to have x-rays taken of my neck, and after the doctor had seen them, numbing cream was applied to either side of my head but before it had had time to work, the doctor drilled a screw into either side of my skull.
This was for a clamp which had a pulley system attached to it from which they were going to hang weights off - this was because the x-rays had shown that I had severely dislocated my neck - I had nearly popped the fourth vertebrae down completely out of alignment and the weights were meant to be there to stretch my neck and get the vertebrae to slide back into place.
But there was a problem, as before my accident I was quite a muscular young man and I had too much muscle in my neck and back that the doctor hung as much weight as he could off the clamp but after three days my vitals (heart rate and oxygen percentage in my blood) were dropping rapidly. For the second time I was taken to x-ray where they found after three days of traction my neck had not moved, not even a millimetre.
The day before this happened my parents had flown out to come and see me and be by my side for the duration of my time there spending almost 24 hours a day for two and a half weeks at my bedside, I will always be incredibly thankful for this.
Putting in a hit © Henry Fraser
Soon after this, it was back to the operating theatre where they went through the front of my neck to see if they could align the vertebrae but this was unsuccessful. I remember waking up after the operation in a different state as I had two big tubes going into my mouth and down my throat - this was a ventilator that was breathing for me as my lungs couldn't. I also had a large tube going into my nose and into my stomach through which I was fed with a special liquid supplement. When I looked up I saw bags full of antibiotics as during my time in the Portuguese hospital I had contracted pneumonia and MRSA. A mixture of the illnesses and sheer panic of my situation meant I never slept as the pain and fear were all too much and it was at this time that I had many dark thoughts running through my head but when I look back at it I regret ever thinking that way.
My panicking brought along another drawback, as normally with spinal patients panicking raises the heart rate, but with me the opposite happened as my heart dropped off until no heartbeat registered and this happened seven times to me. I remember moments before my heart dropped nurses ran to my bedside to try and stop this happening, I had one that punched me in my throat but she apologised once I came out off the blackout. As a consequence of my heart failure I had a pacemaker put into my body to try and make sure my heart would not drop again.
As my first surgery did not work properly I was booked in for a second a week later. It lasted seven hours, where they went through the front again and through the back of my neck to screw and wire the vertebrae back into alignment, and again I'm so thankful forwhat the surgeons did on my neck as I was told they had done an amazing job. A week later I was airlifted back to England.
I cannot remember my flight home, but I'm told it's not such a bad thing.
My first memory of being back in England was waking up in a small dark room staring at a blank ceiling.
I was put into a side room in the Intensive Therapy Unit (ITU) by myself on account of my MRSA and other illnesses. It was right in the depths of the hospital, far away from everything else, with no natural daylight.
© Henry Fraser
I was put on a tilt bed as the doctors did not want to sit me up, which I hated. I always felt like I was going to slide off and, knowing I could not stop myself if it did happen, it was horrible. Panic was inevitable. This was not helping with the strain on my heart. My pace maker was having a field day. When they decided to move me onto a bed which could sit me up, they had to slide me across. The transfer was horrible. Lucky for me they chose to sedate me, giving me a sweet release from what was happening. I finally had a chance of getting some much needed sleep.
There are three days that will always stick with me. The first is the day my brothers walked through the door of my room. The last time they saw me I was a fit and healthy 17-year-old, now I was unable to move, tubes were coming out of me and I was in a bed.
But finally we could be together as a family, something I thought would not happen when I was laying face down in the sea. It was a highly emotional time, but a great time. Mum and Dad were in the room with us. We were all back together again. Having my family there lit up the otherwise dark room and situation I had landed myself in.
The hardest thing to deal with during my time in ITU was illness. I contracted a higher level of MRSA, MRSA Septicemia, which at the time hit me hard, mentally and physically. The MRSA would flare up and hinder my progress knocking me back two steps. It was something I would try and deny as it was the last thing I wanted. This mindset would make things worse. All I should have done was accept it, and move on. I thought I would never get out.
Another impact from the injury was my temperature. A normal body temperature is 37-degrees. Mine reached just over 41, dangerously high. It meant when people came to visit, if it rose, I had to turn them away like I did with my cousins. When this kind of thing happened the only way to keep my body cool was to have bags of ice surrounding my body. The injury meant I cannot control my body temperature, a problem I still have today. Rather than have all the ice, I wanted a cold drink to speed it up. The feeding tube meant I still wasn't allowed to swallow anything, food or drink. The closest I got to a drink was a small sponge dipped in water, then sucking the liquid from the sponge.
Nights were horrible. I was given some serious sleeping tablets, but as my mind was working over time it would work against them. All kinds of thoughts and weird dreams would flash by in what little sleep I could get. I would look forward to the next day when I would have someone by my side and feel calm enough to nap. As I could barely speak at this time, even that was tiring, the nap was a relief. I could barely move my neck at that point, so just basic things would tire me out.
The day I had my ventilator changed was brutal. I was used to my old one. I felt like I could not breath, it was working against what I was used to. I really felt like something was blocking my throat, almost like being back in the water again. It was awful. It took a while for it to be adjusted, but once it was done I had a new lease of life. I could finally get some words out, some almost normal communication. It was also one more step to moving to the next ward.
Thankfully being back in England allowed me to finally see all my family and friends again. It was always such a lift to have someone come and see me. I can still picture the cards on a shelf in the corner of my room. I would look at them or read them during a bad spot and knowing people were behind me really drove me on to get as healthy as I could, to show them how much their support helped. It was and is the only way I could thank them for their support.
Every day my family would be there for me. My Mum would come early every morning and be there all day, even until the evening. My eldest brother was at university at the time, but would drive home every weekend to see me, and spend the weekend with me. My second brother would come every day after training and I remember we would watch multiple episodes of Come Dine With Me, as it was the only good thing on the tiny TV I had in my room. My younger brother would come every day after school, and stay for as long as he could before he had to do his school work. My Dad would come after a long day of work and stay with me late until I went to sleep, sometimes very late.
No one could understand how much their support helped. I was out of ITU after two weeks. I just wished it seemed that short.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Download ESPN's new UK multisport app, a fresh and powerful new way to follow your favourite UK sports news, scores and video.
"I had a perfect record against England as did a few other Welshmen. England always seemed to bring the best out of us." John Taylor on the age-old rivalry
Are the margins between the teams in the Six Nations getting smaller year-on-year? Huw Richards gives some answers
Martin Gillingham looks at the state of play in the Top 14 and gives his take on the club versus country battle harming the prospects of the French side
Manu Tuilagi, Cockerill's psychological warfare and Saracens' brute strength - it is the Monday Maul